Sarah Bernhardt and Her World

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Occasionally in the course of history individuals stand out not only because they embody the milieu in which they live, but also because the overwhelming power of their personalities shapes and transcends their milieu. In the late 1800’s, which saw the emergence of the Age of Realism, as depicted in literature by Zola and James, but which also simultaneously witnessed the flowering of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, Sarah Bernhardt stands out as such a unique personality. Her dazzling career as one of the most celebrated actresses of all time was matched only by her lifestyle, which at once outraged and secretly delighted the prim Victorian milieu. At the same time, her love of the exotic and the bizarre perfectly reflected the emergence alongside Victorianism of the ornate Byzantine style of art and literature known as the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, which led variously to the “art for art’s sake” movement, the fin de siècle Decadents, and Art Deco.

The illegitimate daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, Sarah was born on October 23, 1844, in Paris. Undistinguished for maternal feelings, her mother deposited the red-haired Sarah with a nurse until, at age fifteen, her parents decided her fate; she would study to become an actress. Her debut in Iphigénie began a career of sixty years in which she played in every classical and modern play including Phèdre, Le Misanthrope, and, perhaps her most famous role, as Marguerite in Dumas’ La Dame aux camélias. So versatile were her talents that she even made a triumphal version of Hamlet in which she played the melancholy prince, certainly an unorthodox role in a society which decreed that a woman’s place was in the home.

Joanna Richardson’s biography provides the details of Bernhardt’s career and begins a much-needed discussion of the reasons for the mystique that surrounded her. Perhaps the first actress to be accorded the adulation usually reserved for royalty, Sarah’s mystery in part surely was due to her striking appearance. Her often unruly red hair, aquiline nose, rather pale complexion, and slim yet rounded figure made her the ideal of feminine beauty espoused by Pre-Raphaelite painters. To add to her mystique Bernhardt selected her accouterments carefully. Her gowns were often white, subtlely tapered to enhance her figure. Her home was a mad collection of Oriental bric-a-brac, bizarre pets like cheetahs and monkeys, and the elaborate metal lamps and sculptures in the style later to be known as Art Nouveau. Herself a talented painter and a sculptor whose works were exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1900, Bernhardt perpetuated her image as artiste, not simply artist. She was said to have studied her lines in a coffin, to have thrown offensive pets into the fireplace. In short, she was clever enough not to deny her public image as an outrageous eccentric.

Her lifestyle, what is more, went counter to Victorian prudery. Herself illegitimate, she gave birth at twenty to Maurice by Henri, Prince de Ligne. Her love affairs were never secret, yet even her notoriety did not prevent her...

(The entire section is 1291 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Booklist. LXXIV, November 15, 1977, p. 516.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, October 1, 1977, p. 1081.

New Yorker. LIII, November 21, 1977, p. 234.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXII, August 15, 1977, p. 63.